Weak GOP Underticket, Weak Results

In reading all about how Tom Foley lost to Dan Malloy in this week’s election, I have yet to see any reference one of the most vexing reasons: The Republicans paid almost no attention to the underticket it put together in support of Foley. In fact, as political party leadership grows weaker in general, this once very important political art form seems to be gradually disappearing from view altogether.

If building a winning underticket is indeed an art form, John Bailey was its Michelangelo. When he was the Democratic Party Chairman in Connecticut, it was never hard to see his guiding hand at work in building a winning, or at least formidable, team. Diversity was the key, and so was political experience. If you had a somewhat less than dynamic Jewish candidate for governor in Abe Ribicoff in 1958, build support for him in the lieutenant governor spot with an affable Irish pol from Putnam, John Dempsey. And when it was Dempsey’s turn to run in 1962, get an Italian-American woman, Ella Grasso, onto the ticket, along with African-American Gerald Lamb from Waterbury. You can go back and look at the tickets during all those years and you will see Bailey’s formula hard at work. Give the voters someone they can relate to, someone who will make their community feel proud, perhaps even someone they know. And get political experience into the mix as well – people who know how to campaign and who have friends and associations all across the state.

I saw this philosophy at work first hand in 1986, when I worked on Bill O’Neill’s gubernatorial campaign. Bailey was gone from the scene, but his lessons had been learned. O’Neill’s ticket included a world of experience, not only his own but also that of Comptroller candidate Ed Caldwell of Bridgeport, Lieutenant Governor Joe Fauliso of Hartford and Attorney General Joe Lieberman of New Haven (born in Stamford). Each had spent years working in the State Capitol and circulating around Connecticut. Each was a seasoned campaigner with his own constituency. Add in a capable man of color in Francisco Borges and a woman, Julie Tashjian, and you had a ticket ready to go to war.

Compare all this to the ticket put together by the Connecticut Republicans this year (although using the term “put together” is probably giving credit where none is due). At the top you had Tom Foley, an unsympathetic one-time loser so uncomfortable in politics that he once had to take lessons from John Rowland on how to work a room. Even so, there was a chance that this was the year Foley could topple Malloy, not by outspending him, not by outthinking him, but by assembling a willing, experienced, competent, diverse, charismatic underticket. Which didn’t happen. At all.

Foley’s running mate, lieutenant governor candidate Heather Somers of Groton, seemed a mere appendage to the GOP effort. Malloy actually picked up votes over 2010 in Somers’ part of the state, including her own town of Groton. This is not what you want from your running mate. The others on the ticket were standard-issue Republican suburbanites: Kie Westby from Southbury, Tim Herbst from Trumbull, Sharon McLaughlin from Ellington and Peter Lumaj from Fairfield. All earnest, no doubt, and perhaps more than competent, but nothing to stir a voter’s soul. And among them there was virtually no experience in anything other than local politics, and suburban politics at that. Why not find a candidate or two who could go into New Haven, Hartford or Bridgeport and at least stir things up a little bit?

But Republican party leadership apparently has no taste for that, even in a year that could have been a good one for them. I admit that times have changed since Bailey was running the show for the Democrats, and that with easier primary challenges it’s harder to forge a ticket these days than it once was. But it’s not impossible. You just have to be aware of the human aspect of politics and what might appeal to voters as they make their decisions. It’s not necessarily something you can feed into a computer or throw money at, but it might just win you an election.


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